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Heavy Ceilings and Love Ties: The Best of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

Diane Mason Jun 28, 2005

The 2005 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, co-presented in New York in June by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, screened 26 films and videos from 20 countries that tackle some of the most important human rights and political stories of our times including; “the war on terror,” the struggle for children’s rights, and the inequities wrought by globalization.

The Liberace of Baghdad

The UK video The Liberace of Baghdad, while not an important work, is of interest because it provides a glimpse of Iraq from the point of view of an Iraqi, a once-famous pianist reduced to playing in a hotel lounge for clusters of contractors. Initially, he speaks obsessively about his lifelong amours. As the situation around him deteriorates, he fears being killed and misses his wife who went to America. He’ll probably emigrate too though he’s reluctant to abandon a daughter who won’t leave. Lying in his hotel basement bed – it’s too dangerous to drive home after hours – he says he fears the ceiling will fall one night and crush him, because it’s so heavy.

The Boys of Baraka

In the riveting feature length documentary film The Boys of Baraka, opening at the Film Forum in the Fall, we’re taken to Baltimore and the grimmest of slums, where children come into the world long after the heaviest of ceilings had fallen, crushed preceding generations and are certain to claim them too, absent the occasional miracle. Here, the heavy ceiling is the history of the African in America, where the institution of slavery ranked with the worst such practices known.

One miraculous intervention in the lives of 20 boys each year since the mid-90s was the conceptually sophisticated Baraka School, situated in the lush countryside of Kenya. Here, they were boarded and educated for two years to give them a shot at living functional, gratifying lives. Among other skills, they were taught how to deal effectively with conflict. When the school is suddenly shut down because of political and economic fallout from 9/11, some of the boys who’d completed only half the course are sufficiently prepared to survive the mean streets, while others are not. This beautifully architected film focuses on three boys from the last group sent to Kenya and sensitively highlights key facets of their stories. It makes clear that people caught in terrible conditions don’t choose to be there but are tripped up by layers of overwhelming circumstances and their very humanity. And it underscores the critical importance of love ties, of how profoundly children are affected by a father in prison or a mother possessed by drugs even though they may receive the tough love of another parent or the care of a gentle grandmother.

The Education of Shelby Knox

Speaking of love ties, the equally riveting The Education of Shelby Knox is, in the end, about just that, but in privileged circumstances. Yes, it’s about a strong-minded 15- year-old with an extraordinary gift for thinking for herself on subjects that are taboo in the conservative Southern Baptist, Republican environment of Lubbock, Texas – where there’s nothing for teens to do but hang out in parking lots and have sex. But all of us are born with gifts. The trick is getting that portion of sunshine, rain and fertilizer that allows those gifts to emerge and flower. What did it for Shelby were two dyed in the wool conservatives who were the best parents imaginable, in the solid middle-class environment their own backgrounds enabled them to provide. Shelby takes a vow not to have sex before marriage, but understands the need for sex education in the schools for the many teens who will have sex. She trusts her sense that homosexuality is natural, and understands that who controls the purse determines policy.

State of Fear

The USA/Peruvian entry State of Fear, opening at the Film Forum on January 25, 2006, is a powerful documentary which damns both houses that, in battling one another, annihilated thousands of Peruvians since 1970: that of the egregiously privileged descendants of the conquistadores and their ilk, who constitute the government and run the military; and, on the other hand, the Shining Path revolutionary movement, in a bitter response to intolerable circumstances. Finally the film damns the regime of Alberto Fujimori which used “terrorism” as an excuse to militarize the state.

Occupation Dreamland

A repetitive, but valuable video record Operation Dreamland registers the thinking of many American soldiers stationed in Falluja before the U.S. military demolished it. While some echo the administration’s line, most get what’s really going on. At a recruitment meeting, they’re nastily reminded of how bleak their futures look, so they’d better re-enlist.

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